Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?

I don’t think there is any part of the Bible that is more disputed than the opening chapters of Genesis. It is not only the meaning of these verses that is the subject of endless debate, but their very nature. What is their genre? Are Genesis 1-11 meant to be understood as history? As fiction? Or are they something else altogether? This is the subject of a fasinating new “Counterpoints” book from Zondervan.

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The format of the “Counterpoints” series is well-known to most of us: A number of authors present their understanding of a controversial passage or subject, and then interact with one another. In Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither, each of the authors is asked to respond to four elements: identify the genre of Genesis 1-11; explain why they believe this is the genre; explore the implications of this genre designation for biblical interpretation; and apply their approach to three specific passages: the story of the Nephilim, Noah and the ark, and the Tower of Babel. James Hoffmeier defends Genesis as history and theology, Gordon Wenham defends Genesis as proto-history, and Kenton Sparks insists it is ancient historiography. While the terms may be intimidating, each viewpoint can be simply summarized.

Hoffmeier admits that there are various literary genres on display in Genesis, but says that “the general tenor of the book, and Gen 1-11 in particular, is intended to be thought of as describing real events.” He understands the geographical precision of the author, as well as the framing of the book into various family histories, as clues that Genesis is meant to describe history. This means that an ancient audience would “consider the Nephilim episode, the flood, and Tower of Babel narratives as historical events.” And if they read it that way, so too should we.

Wenham largely agrees with Hoffmeier, and also sees history behind the events of Genesis 1-11. However, he describes Genesis as proto-history, “a form of writing that has links to the past but interprets history of the sake of the present.” If history (as a genre of writing) can be compared to a photograph of events, he suggests that Genesis 1-11 is more like an abstract painting in that it intends to convey meaning more than specific facts. If this is true, recovering the message of the text is more important than defining its genre and determining which elements are firmly historical. In his view some of the events may be grounded in history and others may not, but the distinction is a secondary concern.

Kenton Sparks takes a much different view and insists that there was no Garden of Eden, no tree of life or tree of knowledge of good and evil, no talking serpent, no worldwide flood or ark, and no Tower of Babel. “Whatever the first chapters of Genesis offer, there is one thing that they certain do not offer, namely, a literal account of events that actually happened prior to and during the early history of humanity.” In this way Genesis 1-11 represents myth or legend. He still believes Genesis is important for what it means to convey, but considers it ridiculous to believe that any of it is grounded in fact (even though the original readers probably did believe it was factual).

For a number of reasons I am comfortable setting aside Sparks’ essay as being outside the bounds of Evangelical theology. It quickly becomes clear that he prioritizes scientific discovery over Scripture and that he reads the Bible through an all-too-familiar biblical criticism straight out of the nineteenth-century. The more interesting comparison is between Hoffmeier and Wenham, both of whom are orthodox, godly scholars who have contributed much to our understanding of Scripture and Christian theology. (Preachers and those who closely study the Bible will no doubt recognize Wenham as the author of superior commentaries of Genesis, Leviticus, and Numbers.)

My honest assessment of the book ranks Wenham as making the strongest case for his position. This is not to say that I agree with his perspective; I find his description of proto-history uneven and more than a little convenient—it allows him to do an end-around past difficult questions such as a literal Garden of Eden and a worldwide flood. At least in this chapter there seem to be few guidelines as to how we can decide which events are historical and which are not. However, I appreciate his reliance on the Bible and his tone in addressing the other authors.

While my view would best be represented by Hoffmeier, I say that only with one major caveat: He believes in an old rather than young earth. Here is a gaping hole in this volume: It contains three views of the Bible’s earliest chapters, but not one of the authors believes in a literal six-day creation. For Wenham and Sparks this is no surprise, but it is disappointing that the scholar defending Genesis as history holds that the earth is ancient and was not created in a literal six-day time period. (It is also odd that this becomes clear only in his response to the author contributors.) While his inclusion does prove that an old-earth view can be reconciled with a historical reading of the early chapters of Genesis, I would have found it much more helpful to have a six-day view represented. I understand that the distinction between young earth and old earth is not the purpose of this volume, yet few six-day adherents would recognize a truly “historical” reading of Genesis 1-11 that sees these events unfolding over millions of years. In that way one major view is not adequately represented.

I enjoyed reading Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither and benefited from the author’s essays and rejoinders (though the editor’s conclusion is both underwhelming and disappointing). It adequately and tersely describes three varied perspectives on the Bible’s most foundational passage, and it provides a mountain of food for thought. Sadly, it is weakened—perhaps not fatally, but certainly significantly—by failing to represent one common and compelling understanding—that Genesis 1-11 should be read both literally and historically as describing real events just as they took place.

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